What Money Can’t Buy: A Review of Rosamond Bernier’s Some of My Lives

February 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Merridawn Duckler reviews Rosamond Bernier’s Some of My Lives

Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2011
Rosamond Bernier, daughter of an English mother and a Jewish Hungarian father, was raised in a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia where Rachmaninoff came to dinner but refused to remove his fur coat. When Philip Johnson plans your wedding,  and Aaron Copeland gives you away as Pierre Matisse seats Andy Warhol on the bride’s side, a reader might be forgiven for thinking she’s just around to gawk.

Wouldn’t our lives be as charmed, if only we had the dough? I spent some years among millionaires when I was a young bride, and I am here to tell you the answer, alas, is no. Maybe the rich are different than you and me, but not in the ways you might think. I remember listening to a guy list what he’d buy if he won the lottery. I kept thinking to myself, geez, haven’t you already won a lottery? But the moneyed classes are prickly. Someone is always richer, and resentment is the luxury of choice.

As Some of My Lives abundantly demonstrates, there are things money can’t buy (no, not true love, which Bernier did find, later in life) like taste. She holds to her chest the tragic loss of her mother, a bad marriage “at one point the situation grew unpleasant,” she writes, and that’s the extent of it. The secret burden of modern memoirists may be that their livelihood depends on how much dirt they can dredge up from their lives, but Bernier is no narcissist. She’s a type that is almost out of fashion, the intrepid girl explorer. She takes hair-raising trips to visit quarries with Henry Moore and fends off naked diplomats. She tosses off a line about “a terrible life crisis” and then it’s back to haunting the brothels with Giacometti, all verve and cheer.

The book is subtitled “a scrapbook memoir” though there’s only a modest scattering of pictures, including Bernier in a sexy froth in Madame de Sevigne’s bed. But the scrapbook part may be Bernier’s wink at addressing a life spent among some of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. She’s humble about her part in fostering American understanding via the Met lectures that made her justly famous. A “talker” she calls herself, telling funny stories about her experiences, including a young Mormon publicly thanking God that He had sent her to their school. “The first and only time,” she writes, “that I have ever been linked to the Almighty.”

The chapter headings are studded with memorable names, but the real lure is Bernier’s extraordinarily deft ability to pin legends to the page. A lifetime of looking at art has given her a rare gift for anecdotal description, all the right details and not a hint of condescension. My days of hanging out with millionaires are far behind me, but I am reminded again of them, as signs are raised against that one percent. What we dream, I think, is not to inhabit a world where Rothschild maids daily iron the pleats on the sheets but to be allowed the poetry of extravagant gesture. We want to be freed from the shrinking of the soul that comes with penny-pinching. It’s hard to begrudge Bernier her choice placement when the pleasure she takes in every aspect is shared so naturally. Reading the book is to sit next to a charming woman turning the pages of her scrapbook in your company. Here’s a great story about Gertrude Stein’s poodle! And we’re off. If it gives the occupier any succor, I have to say that one percent barely covers the fun. But Bernier proves that a smart, courageous woman, who can rock a pink Carolina Herrera, will always be a minority. It is entirely to her credit that she is willing to spread the wealth with this book.

Merridawn Duckler has published in Carolina Quarterly, Georgia State Review,  Main Street Rag, Isotope, Green Mountains Review, and Night Train. She was nominated for Best Creative Nonfiction Anthology and a Pushcart Prize. Reviews of her work have appeared in the L.A Times, The New York Times, and on NPR’s All Things Considered. She teaches at the Attic Writers Workshop in Portland, Oregon, and is an associate editor at Narrative magazine.

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